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  • Unconventional Ag

FDA Orders Food Manufacturers to Stop Using Trans Fats within Three Years: Industry Reactions

On Tuesday June 16, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it deemed trans fats as not ‘generally recognized as safe’ for use in the production of foods for human consumption, and mandated that the use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) be eliminated within three years.

This ruling by the FDA comes as not surprise to the U.S. food industry. Beginning in 2006 food manufacturers were required to list trans fats content on product labels, and after years of scientific studies, review, and public comment periods, the FDA determined in 2013 that trans fats were not safe.

Industries React

For more than a decade the U.S. soybean industry has been anticipating a ruling against trans fats. In anticipation, the United Soybean board (USB) has spent years developing two viable replacements for the estimated 2 billion pounds of partially hydrogenated soybean oil used in food production today. “We’re excited to bring solutions like high oleic and interesterified soybean oil to the market and ready to shift the discussion to innovation,” says Jimmy Sneed, Mississippi soybean farmer and USB leader. “High oleic soybeans and interesterified soybean oil are solutions brought online to help food companies maintain the taste consumers prefer, while using a domestically sourced, sustainable oil.”

High oleic soybeans produce an oil that can add stability to the food production process, much as PHOs once did, but without the need for partial hydrogenation. Currently high oleic soybeans are grown in nine U.S. states, with acreage continually being added into production.

Of all edible oil industries, the one that will likely benefit the most from the FDA’s official announcement will be palm oil. Because of its high degree of saturation, palm oil is a solid at room temperature, making it the go-to product for replacing PHOs since the early 2000s when companies, and indeed whole cities began restricting the use of PHOs in foods.

But the increase in palm oil consumption has not been without its share of controversy, as environmentalists point to the industry’s role in the destruction of peatlands, rainforests, and natural habitats of wild and endangered species. And so, this announcement is being viewed not just as an opportunity for the industry, but particularly for sustainable, deforestation-free palm oil, to gain even more market share as companies seek to fill the gap left by the removal of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Lael Goodman, analyst with the Tropical Forest and & Climate Initiative notes, "As companies continue to use palm oil to fill the gap left by the removal of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, an increase in demand for palm oil should in fact be an increase in demand for only deforestation-free palm oil."

Change in the Aisles?

Although once widespread in the U.S. diet, and perhaps most common in pie crusts, biscuits, spreadable frostings, cake mixes, microwave popcorn, coffee creamers, frozen pizzas, and margarine, food companies have been eliminating trans fats in food for years. The FDA estimates that between 2003 and 2012, trans fat consumption in the U.S. has decreased by approximately 78% due to oil replacement in food production.

Once food labeling of trans fats became mandatory in the early 2000s, and consumption trends began to focus on health, companies began phasing out PHOs in earnest. Yum Brands, owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC began eliminating trans fats from its cooking oils in 2007. “We are on a nutrition journey to create more high-quality options, more transparency and continuous improvement of our ingredients,” Jonathan Blum, chief global nutrition officer for Yum Brands, said in a statement following the FDA’s June 16 ruling.

Other companies including Starbucks Corp., McDonalds, Long John Silvers, Dunkin Donuts, and Chick-fil-A have since completely removed trans fats from their menu options and products, while Wal-Mart has directed its supplier to phase out PHOs.

On the whole, consumers will likely not notice a change in their favorite foods, but will certainly benefit from the change. Michael Jacobson, director of the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest summed it up when he said that the decision to eliminate trans fats, "is probably the single most important thing the FDA has ever done for the healthfulness of the food supply.”

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